The Painted Veil
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir John Curran
scr Ron Nyswaner
with Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Li Bin, Yu Xia, Juliet Howland, Cheng Shihan, Yin Lu, Li Feng
release US 20.Dec.06,
UK 27.Apr.07
06/China Warner 2h05

Up the lazy river: Watts and Norton

schreiber jones rigg

26th Shadows Awards
Naomi Watts

The Painted Veil Based on the W Somerset Maugham novel, this gorgeously assembled film tells a story of political tension both in rural 1920s China and within a strained British marriage. Superb performances and elegant production values make it profoundly involving.

The story opens in 1925 as bacteriologist Walter Fane (Norton) travels deep into China with his clearly reluctant wife Kitty (Watts). Flash back a few years to London and their meeting, hurried courtship and married life in Shanghai, where the rather spoiled Kitty has a not-so-secret affair with a diplomat (Schreiber). Now it seems Walter is punishing her by dragging her into an isolated cholera epidemic, refusing to even look at her. But she begins to break him down simply by showing him who she really is--flawed and perhaps shallow but also worth holding onto.

Watts and Norton play these stifled Brits beautifully, layering in boredom and rage, passion and humour, and bravely refusing to make them terribly likeable. These aren't typical movie protagonists; they're complex, riveting, deeply identifiable people who seem determined to wound each other even as they yearn for a solid connection. This is one of Norton's least self-conscious performances in years, and one of Watts' most intricate roles. Their interaction is brittle, beautifully awkward and powerfully moving.

Curran films this with a light touch, even as the story takes in some fairly strong political overtones, with the locals rebelling against the British colonialists, adding the threat of physical violence to the interpersonal turmoil and the ever-present disease. Side characters bring this to life with warmth, colour and energy, from Schreiber's coolly attractive politician to Jones' crinkled Westerner-gone-native and Riggs' savvy French nun. And China itself plays a strong role in the story.

With evocative music, sharp editing and striking cinematography, the film is textured and sensual, as well as edgy and unpredictable. Although a heavy whiff of impending doom lingers from the start, we give in to the story and characters completely. Even when the story becomes a somewhat cynical look at the superficiality of what we call love, as opposed to the real thing. This is simply exquisite filmmaking.

cert 12 themes, grisliness, some violence 31.Dec.06

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... The Painted Veil john, u.s.a.: "well, i'll say i like the fact that you mentioned something few people have mentioned--their humour. the 2d time i saw it (not the first) there was a lot of laughter in the theatre--at the right times. it's dark humor. but so was watts's ellie parker (which very few people have seen, but iñárritu said she showed more range in it than in mulholland dr! and variety compared the generally dramatic watts w/lucille ball & carole lombard). for those who thought 21 grams was too emotional (that's what the latin-tempered iñárritu wanted), this is more restrained--like mulholland dr. it is like verismo opera v. french opera. her expressions tell as much as any other actress. & it's a nice one to look at even as a brunette." [7.Jan.07] NB. See Shadows' review of ELLIE PARKER.
© 2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall